A Smuggling Trial That Raises Racial Issues, Too ; of 14 Indicted in Immigrant Deaths, Why Does Only Tyrone Williams Face Capital Punishment?

Article excerpt

The first time Abelardo Flores Jr. saw Tyrone Williams at a Texas warehouse, he said he knew he was the one. Mr. Flores had gotten so good at finding truckers to drive illegal immigrants north, he would often make bets with friends when he spotted a potential new recruit.

It took some convincing that day, said Flores in court testimony this week - especially since Mr. Williams said he preferred to run drugs instead of people - but the trucker from New York finally agreed to haul the immigrants for $6,500. Two weeks later, Williams was back for another load, this time asking for $7,500.

Flores said he agreed to pay the extra money, hoping that Williams would become a regular driver in his human-smuggling ring. They parted that night after close to 75 people were stuffed inside the truck's trailer. A few hours later, while partying at a topless bar, Flores received frantic phone calls. He would soon learn that things had gone terribly wrong.

After four delays and two appeals, the trial of Tyrone Williams - the highest-profile participant in the immigrant- smuggling operation that left 19 people dead near Victoria, Texas - finally began in Houston this week in a case raising new questions about the application of the federal death penalty. It is a trial being closely watched on both sides of the border amid rising concern about human smuggling. Mr. Williams is the first person to face the federal death penalty under a 10-year-old human-trafficking law.

The government calls the operation a despicable criminal enterprise, one that "treated people worse than cattle on their way to the slaughterhouse," according to assistant US Attorney Daniel Rodriguez in opening statements. "And Tyrone Williams was the most evil, cruel, and heartless member of that enterprise."

The defense claims that Williams, pursing his lips through much of the testimony, did not know how many immigrants were in his trailer and that he had no reason to suspect they were running out of air. "He is guilty of transporting undocumented persons into this country," said his lawyer, Craig Washington. "But [the government] will not be able to prove that these poor, helpless, defenseless people died at his hand."

Despite the sad and shocking details of the incident, the repeated delays and appeals in this case have revolved around a single question: Why was the only person charged with capital murder an African-American? Of the 14 people indicted (12 Hispanics and two African-Americans), 12 were eligible for the death penalty. Prosecutors say Williams was singled out because he was the only one who had control of the tractor-trailer. In other words, he was the only one who could have saved the immigrants' lives by opening the doors or turning on the refrigeration unit.

But after US District Judge Vanessa Gilmore asked for a letter from then-Attorney General John Ashcroft explaining why the government sought the death penalty "on the only black guy," the prosecution refused to explain its rationale.

Defense lawyers say that's common. The government never releases documents containing the charges, even though the issue of racial discrimination is routinely raised. "It is one of the most closely guarded secrets you can imagine," says Rick Kammen, an Indianapolis lawyer who has handled 17 federal death-penalty cases. "The government's position has been, 'Six men and a wild monkey will not tear this material from us.' "

Ever since the federal death penalty was restored in 1988, charges of racial discrimination have plagued the Justice Department. …